Continued from here.
The mountain is one hell of a fickle bitch. One minute, she’s cold, violent, icy, spitting mad and throwing obstacles into your path for out of spite. The next day she’s gentle, almost nurturing, catches you when you fall, cradles you in snow, lets the run flow like water. The white cracks that run down her face cut long swaths through huge jagged cliffs and white topped patches of trees, sliding down into rolls of varying incline and running wily-nilly down to the base lodges that invite the weak-hearted inside. If there was ever a chance I would fall in love, this it what it would be with – the cold air on my cheeks, the silence of the backcountry, the long, steep drops with tired legs and watering eyes, the sweet companionship of someone who shares my intensity.
I stood next to Mark, ski tips jutting over the ledge, watching little crumbles of snow tumbling down the slope before us, bouncing off miniature projectiles in a mockery of our own eventual path down. This was the hardest part, convincing myself that hurtling through thin air to land on an uneven surface in the middle of trees wasn’t that deadly. This was the best part, when the fear was bubbling deep in my chest, radiating up through my throat, and I breathed deeply and let the percolation dissipate like I was stirring a pot that was boiling over on my finicky stove.
I glanced at Mark. He looked like he always looked before we hit our first run of the day – goggles perched haphazardly on the rim of his white helmet, leaning forward like a horse at the race gate, expression concentrated. He noticed me looking at him and met my eyes with his movie poster smile, unruly brown hair curling against his pink cheeks, breath one long gust of white. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling back before I pulled my own goggles down over my eyes.
“Remember the creek bed falls down on the left side fast here, so if you’re searching for powder, get in and get out,” I said.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, leaning in and kissing me on the top of my new helmet. I pulled my kerchief up over my mouth before he could see me smile like a high school student that just got asked to prom.
I scanned the path that was haphazardly carved into the snow, defined more by rocks and trees than by logic, and wordlessly pointed my pole to what seems to be the safest way down, bypassing a huge ice chunk and cutting in front of a sizable pine tree before curving out of sight. Mark hurled himself into the abyss with a yell that was more animal than human. I leaned into the air, watching the ground rush towards me and landing with a screech on my skis that I knew meant I’d be patching up rock holes in my base tonight. Spring skiing was coming up quick this year.
I followed him down in a tight line for a good twenty feet before the trees opened slightly and our paths started to diverge, cutting in and out and behind and in front of each other’s line of vision. We only ever stopped or slowed long enough to avoid disaster, never quite long enough to lose our nerve. We yelled to each other through the trees, our words getting caught in the wind and thrown back into our faces, breaking up the swish and click of turns, the thud of snow falling from bumped trees as the ground remade itself under our feet, so that the snow carried us, the rocks pushed themselves up from their burial grounds and the trees slithered closer together on their twisted roots to bar our way through.
On the slope, I felt predatory, adjusting my skis as minutely as if they were an extension of my own body, like a bird adjusting a single feather to change the outcome of a freefalling dive. It is not a sport you can develop in stages. You do not know if you have the courage to drop five feet off of a rocky promenade until you are standing on its ledge, secure in the knowledge that no one will come looking for you if you fall, unless your mangled body is chanced upon by someone equally moronic. The desire to survive the experience grants us the skills to come out of the backwoods unharmed.
All too soon we reached the section where the trail split into two directions. I was ahead of Mark and I knew he knew as well I did that the left fork would take us down to my supposedly unskiable cliff face, the forty-foot drop that looks bad on a powder day. I also knew that he was expecting me to take the right fork, to ignore the cliff, but I hesitated a fraction too long and my skis turned right just a little too late. I hit the sapling almost head on and had just enough sense to bend my knees on impact as I fell and something sharp grazed my side and the snow rained down on my head.
I lay still for a long moment before I opened my eyes. The snow was in my mouth and under my goggles, pressing down on my head and chest. My legs were immobile, locked into the still thick sheltered powder by both the weight of the snow and my skis. I made an experimental movement with my head, tilting it from side to side, and the snow fell inside of my jacket. Instinctively, my shoulders tensed and my arms twitched from the cold. Slowly I began to move, digging my way out with careful motions, aware that I sank several inches for every one that I gained.
“Shit,” Mark said, as he made his way gingerly towards me, packing down the snow beneath his skis as he went. I could tell by the way the tuh sound came out a little too sharp that he was angry.
“You are both extremely reckless and extremely accident prone. Not a good combination.”
“Shut up,” I grunted, trying to untangle my poles from my wrists without falling backwards into the powder. I let him take them from me and I braced my hands against the tree I’d hit, backing out slowly from the treacherous sinkhole I’d created as Mark kept tamping the area down with the base of his skis.
Awkwardly, I gained ground and eventually pulled myself onto safe terrain, and he gave me back my poles and slapped the snow off my back I strapped them back on.
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking down at my goggles from the only angle where he could see my eyes from behind my mirrored lens.
“I’m fine,” I replied, shifting my head, and he sighed.
“Okay,” Mark replied, “after you.”
He was standing deliberately between me and the drop. I breathed out the inhale I was holding onto, stamped my feet and pushed off into the right trail, jumping nimbly between the trees and disappearing. I could hear the scrape of his edges against the occasional patch of ice or rock behind me and I push myself to go a little faster, letting the smaller branches glance off my helmet as I pass by.
Triumphantly, we burst from the glades onto the main trail, startling the civilian skiers who seem to crawl down the corduroy incline like snails, hands thrust in front of them awkwardly, feet turned inward, teeth gritted. We flitted between the traffic, a high-speed chase on a cluttered freeway, edging close to enough to make them panic, like sharks drifting through schools of fish. The unrealistic sense of security in stupidity remained and my speed picked up in the open to dangerous, bone shattering probability, ski tips lifting off the snow, wind chattering in my ears. Like a falcon I pulled in my arms and head and skied straight for a while, feet flat to the ground, until a skier entered my field of vision and I had to pull up slightly and shift my weight and bank a smooth right turn behind her traverse, leaving her standing frozen in comparison to my momentum, Mark crossing in front of her, curving his path as if she were a rock in his stream. In formation we tumbled towards the bottom of the hill, not checking our speed until we had sorted our way through the chaos of people at the base of the lift and stopped inches from those ahead of us in line.
We freed ourselves from our equipment and stood docilely in line, tamed momentarily by the press of people. Mark leaned his forehead on his skis and closes his eyes, his breath calming slowly. I leaned down and loosen my boots. We stood out in a sea of muted colors and grays, a vibrant and obvious pop of color.
I shook the remaining snow out of my jacket and felt a developing bruise on my side under my fingers. I must have hit the tree harder then I thought I did.
Mark noticed my gesture and frowned.
“Are you okay?” he asked for a second time.
I rolled my eyes.
“Let me see,” he insisted.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not seven years old.”
“Oh for god’s sake, Susan, let’s just pop in to the lodge for 5 minutes. The mountain will still be here when we come back out.”
“I’m not going in,” I replied icily. People were starting to stare at us from behind their equipment, holding it in front of their faces and peeking over the sides. Mark gave me a long look, then started to gently make his way out of crowd.
“Where are you going?” I called after him.
“My feet are cold,” he yelled over his shoulder.
I looked up at the mountain, waiting patiently for me, and to the gondola in front of me, and back to Mark, who was walking slowly backwards. For one second I was so steaming mad that I considered planting my feet where I was and taking a solo run, and I was about to do it, too, until I caught his eyes and I knew that this was one of those make or break moments in a relationships that could change everything.